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A surprise initiative

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

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India's October 22 package of confidence-building measures takes Pakistan by surprise. Islamabad accepts the proposals with some controversial conditions.

in New Delhi

INDIA took Pakistan and the diplomatic community based in New Delhi by surprise when it announced on October 22 a 12-point proposal to resume the peace process with the neighbouring country. Until the middle of October, senior Indian officials starting from External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha had ruled out the possibility of an early resumption of dialogue with Islamabad. In fact, while announcing the latest proposals, formulated by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), to the media, the Minister reiterated that there would be no bilateral talks with Pakistan when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Islamabad in early January to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He even ruled out the resumption of secretary-level talks till such time "as we see evidence on the ground that cross-border terrorism has been brought to an end".

In a related move, on October 22, the government announced that Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani would lead the talks with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) on the Kashmir issue The Hurriyat had been insisting on high-level talks and had refused to deal with the Central government's interlocutor, the former Home Secretary N.N. Vohra.

Pakistani officials had given up hopes of an early resumption of dialogue as the rhetoric emanating from the two capitals had become over-heated. After a brief period of thaw following Vajpayee's speech in Srinagar in April, positions began to harden on both sides. A change in New Delhi's attitude became evident following Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Senior Indian government officials had openly expressed the hope that Musharraf would not as usual harp excessively on the Kashmir issue. But the hopes proved to be misplaced as Musharraf devoted a considerable part of his speech to the Kashmir issue. However, according to diplomats, what really irritated the Indian government was his assertion that he was glad that India has stepped back from its dangerous and failed experiment in "coercive diplomacy" last year. He was referring to the massing of Indian troops on the western borders with Pakistan. However, Musharraf took the opportunity to once again invite India to engage in a composite dialogue with Pakistan. Importantly, he suggested that both countries "observe a complete ceasefire" along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. Pakistan, he said, would also be prepared to encourage a general cessation of violence within Kashmir. He, however, added a rider, saying that Pakistan would act as an honest broker only if there "are reciprocal obligations and restraints on the Indian forces and the Kashmiri freedom movement". Indian officialdom was naturally angry at Musharraf's speech and a war of words followed.

There has been obvious pressure from the United States on both countries to restart the dialogue process expeditiously. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christine Rocca recently described both India and Pakistan as two "close allies" in the fight against terrorism. Rocca and her colleagues have been insisting that Islamabad is a strong partner in the global war on terrorism. At the same time, they have also been saying that Pakistan could crack down further on the movement of militants into Jammu and Kashmir. The U.S. move to declare Mumbai underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, now based in Karachi, a "wanted terrorist" is viewed as a vindication of India's stand, and a sop from Washington. Diplomatic observers have noted that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance at the Centre has not been averse to accepting U.S. mediation efforts. Islamabad, on the other hand, has always been receptive to American mediation.

Another factor that could have influenced the timing of the Indian initiative may have been the recent upsurge in violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan as the weaker country has a vested interest in raising tensions in Kashmir so as to impress upon the U.S. the need to put pressure on India to resume talks. Many diplomatic observers feel that both New Delhi and Islamabad are using Washington to push their interests forward. Washington has for the first time stationed its forces in South Asia after the Second World War and in the process has gained even greater leverage in the affairs of the subcontinent. It has unofficially emerged as an arbiter of sorts between the two countries. New Delhi decided to withdraw its troops from the western border only after consulting Washington. Islamabad was never kept in the picture. India evidently feels that the U.S. now has a better appreciation of the Kashmir problem in the light of the events of September 11. Pakistani officials may have reasons to fear that the Indian side has convinced influential sections in Washington that the Kashmir dispute is also intimately connected with the global war against terrorism.

PAKISTAN took some time to respond officially to the proposals unveiled by India. Islamabad was not happy with what it perceived as grandstanding by the Indian side. Since the failure of the Agra summit between the two countries, the Indian government has made it a point to sidetrack the Musharraf-led government and appeal directly to Pakistani public opinion.

Some of the new Indian measures have a populist flavour such as the important proposal to establish more transport links between the two countries. These include the starting of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad (the capital of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir), across the LoC; the restarting of the ferry service between Mumbai and Karachi, which was stopped when the two countries went to war in 1965; and a rail/bus link between Khokrapar in Rajasthan and Munnabao in Sindh. India had offered to start a new visa checkpost at Khokrapar before the Agra summit. New Delhi has offered to start talks over the resumption of the Samjhauta Express and on increasing the number of buses on the Delhi-Lahore route. Yashwant Sinha proposed a hotline between the Coast Guards of the two countries on the pattern of the existing hotline between the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the two countries. The Indian side suggested that fishermen of the two countries caught at sea in a mutually agreed zone should not be arrested.

New Delhi has wanted an early resumption of air links. The hasty decision to deny Pakistan overflight facilities after the terrorist attack on the Parliament building in December 2001 has proved counter-productive. India's flag carrier, Air-India, has lost millions of dollars owing to the costly and time-consuming detours required to skirt Pakistani air space. Pakistani civil aviation too has suffered, especially in the East Asia sector. PIA had to stop many of its flights to East Asian capitals and close its offices in these cities.

Yashwant Sinha said that India was ready to hold another round of talks for the restoration of air links and the resumption of overflights between the two countries. Pakistan had indicated that it was not averse to an early resumption of air links provided it got some sort of an assurance that New Delhi would not pre-emptively close its air space for Pakistani civil aviation in future.

Yashwant Sinha, however, has said that India is unlikely to give "an all-time guarantee that overflights by Pakistani civil aircraft will never be stopped in the future". He said that India was ready to restore all sporting links with Pakistan, including cricketing ones. The Indian government has proposed that people over the age of 65 could cross the Wagah border on foot. This would help them save considerable time and energy. New Delhi has offered to provide medical care for 20 more Pakistani children in Indian hospitals. Yashwant Sinha said that the government was in favour of setting up "visa camps" in different Pakistani cities to speed up travel formalities. He said that after all the suggestions were implemented, India would be willing to negotiate with Pakistan the issue of increasing the staff strengths in the respective High Commissions.

Advani said in the last week of October that India's new offer "was not a sign of weakness". An English daily close to the ruling party had quoted Yashwant Sinha as telling the BJP's foreign policy cell that the new proposals put India in a "win-win" situation. India, he reportedly said, had everything to gain from the proposals. "If the Pakistan President turns them down, he will be cornered by the international community. If he accepts them, it will be a feather in India's cap." He described the decision to appoint Advani as the interlocutor with the Hurriyat as "a clever move designed to split the Hurriyat".

DIPLOMATS conversant with South Asian politics have said that Vajpayee's April peace initiative from Srinagar was really aimed at the international community while the October surprise was meant for domestic consumption, made on the eve of elections to five legislative Assemblies. Defence Minister George Fernandes' assertion that the latest initiative was India's "final effort" at negotiating a peace deal with Pakistan, has also not helped matters, judging from the reaction from the Pakistani side.

On October 28, Pakistan responded showing the willingness to accept most of the 12-point proposal but added some controversial conditions for implementing some of them. While accepting the idea of a bus service between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar, Pakistan insisted that the checkposts along the LoC should be manned by U.N. personnel as the entire area was a "disputed territory". Islamabad is suspicious of India's moves. Pakistani diplomats are of the opinion that legalising a "cross-border" bus route is a ploy to legitimise the LoC as a de jure border. New Delhi on its part has described Islamabad's insistence on U.N. documentation for travel across the LoC as an "impractical demand". A spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that India's offer to start a bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was solely "motivated by humanitarian considerations". He said that it was unfortunate that Pakistan had chosen to "politicise" the issue. The official pointed out that the people in the region did not undertake travel with the kind of documents Pakistan mentioned.

Islamabad is of the opinion that before expanding transport links, the strength of the consular staff should be increased to their original numbers, which stood at around 120, so that the issuance of visas could be expedited. It would prefer to take up the question of "visa camps" in various cities, as suggested by India, only after this issue is resolved. Even with only one bus currently operating every day, Pakistan's New Delhi mission feels overburdened as it issues more than 40 visas a day. Pakistan had also suggested that instead of the bus running from New Delhi to Lahore, it would be better for the travellers to embark or disembark in Amritsar. It is pointed out that people from Punjab and other parts of North India would find it more convenient to board the bus in Amritsar. Pakistani officials have also indicated that if a regular train service is restored, there will be no urgent need to increase the number of buses plying between Lahore and Delhi.

New Delhi reacted angrily to Pakistan's offer of providing 100 scholarships for people from Jammu and Kashmir and free treatment for disabled persons, widows and victims of rape from that State. "We are amused at Pakistan's profession of concern at the plight of disabled and negatively affected people in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. If Pakistan's concerns are really sincere, it should take immediate steps to end infiltration, dismantle the infrastructure of support to terrorism, and offer compensation to those affected by terrorism it has sponsored," the MEA spokesman said. The official said India would work to bring about lasting peace between the two countries. "We also remain committed to a dialogue process based on the premise that sustained dialogue requires an end to cross-border infiltration and terrorism."

Pakistani officials, on the other hand, insist that infiltration across the LoC has been reduced to a bare minimum. They claim that it is impossible to stop people who are determined to cross the difficult mountainous terrain. They point out that Pakistan's suggestion that both sides should stop shelling across the LoC has not been accepted by New Delhi. The Indian government's allegation is that the Pakistani Army facilitates the infiltration of militants under "cover fire" provided by its shelling.

Meanwhile, Christina Rocca told a U.S. congressional committee that the U.S. was working closely with India and Pakistan to stamp out terrorism. "(The) increasingly intensive Indo-U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation reflects the closer relations that the United States seeks across the board with India," she told the committee. At the same time, she described Pakistan as a "vital linchpin in the campaign against terror".

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 21, 2003.)

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